Conditum paradoxum

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the things my husband Donald and I share is a fascination with the culture of ancient Rome.  Since I also love to cook, this leads inexorably to our attempts to recreate ancient Roman food and beverages.  I say “our” even though it’s usually me doing the cooking.  Donald is there for encouragement.  Such as, “We haven’t had any Roman food in a while.”  Or, “When are you going to cook some more Roman food?”  He does help with the dishes.

One ancient Roman recipe I’ve made twice now is conditum paradoxum, from Apicius, the most famous ancient Roman cookbook.  Depending on the translation, conditum paradoxum means “marvelous seasoned wine”, “novelty spiced wine”, or “spiced wine surprise”.

Unlike most recipes in Apicius, the instructions for conditum paradoxum include both procedure and exact proportions.  Donald has the original Latin on his blog.  Here’s a translation (Grocock, Christopher, and Sally Grainger. Apicius:  A Critical Edition with an Introduction and English Translation.  Blackawton:  Prospect Books, 2006.  Print.).  Except I left the ancient units untranslated instead of calling them pounds, ounces and pints, because they’re not exactly the same as the modern equivalents.

15 librae of honey by weight is put into a bronze pan containing 2 sextarii of wine so that the wine and the honey cook together.  Warm the pan on a gentle fire of dry wood and stir with a stick as it cooks.  If it begins to boil it is settled with a sprinkling of wine, besides which it will subside when it is removed from the fire.  When it has cooled down, it is heated again.  This will be done a second and a third time, and then at last it is removed from the hearth, and it is skimmed the day after.  Then you put in 4 unciae of ground pepper; 3 scruples of  mastic; one dragma each of folium and saffron; 5 roasted date stones and the dates themselves softened in wine of the same kind and quality, added in beforehand so that a smooth paste is produced.  When all these are ready you pour on 18 sextarii of smooth wine.  Charcoal is put in when it is finished (to avert the sour taste).

One thing that becomes quickly apparent if you look around for modern adaptations of this recipe is that no one these days likes  the Apicius proportions.  Everyone cuts way back on the honey.  However, although the original does call for about 11 pounds of honey in 11 liters of wine, the ancients didn’t drink their wine straight.  As far as we can tell, they cut it with at least 3 parts water to every 1 part wine.  Modern interpretations Donald and I have seen all try to produce a spiced wine that you could enjoy drinking unwatered, but that isn’t authentic, nor do I think it’s necessary.

I used the original proportions, scaling them down for 1.5 liters of wine (2 standard bottles).  That comes out to:

1.5 liters wine
15 grams ground pepper
682 grams honey
1 roasted date pit
1 pitted date soaked in a bit of the wine
0.63 grams folium
0.63 grams saffron (I used 0.5 g, since this is the smallest size available from Penzeys Spices down the street)
0.48 grams mastic (9-10 beads)

Scholars don’t know what was meant by folium, which means, simply, “leaf”.  Some think it’s bay leaf, which the Romans usually called folium lauri; others think it’s tejpat leaf, which the Romans usually called malabathrum.  I used tejpat, which I obtained from Kalustyan’s in Manhattan (they do mail order).  You could use bay leaf if you wanted.  Maybe the original recipe is vague because it didn’t matter which one you used.

We got gum mastic from Amazon.  It’s a hardened resin, and comes in a jar of small beads.

You’ll notice that the quantities of a lot of the spices are pretty small.  You’re probably going to need an electronic scale if you want to try this yourself.  Even then, unless you have access to an analytical balance (and if you have one of those at home, I don’t want to know why), your scale probably won’t measure small enough quantities with any degree of accuracy.  Mine doesn’t register weights smaller than a gram, so for the tejpat leaf and mastic, we would weigh out 4 or 10 times what we needed, then take a quarter or a tenth of that pile, judging by eyeing it.  Not very accurate, but I’m not sure it matters.  There’s a lot of pepper in there, and saffron is a very strong-tasting spice.  I’m not even 100% sure that I would be able to taste the difference if I left out the tejpat leaf and gum mastic.  So far, I haven’t tried that.

If you don’t have an electronic balance, you could try making the recipe in the original quantity.  A sextarius is 0.54 liters, and the original recipe calls for a total of 20 sextarii of wine, so if you’re good at math (or ancient Roman weights and measures), you can figure out how much of everything you’ll need.  That will make a lot of spiced wine, though.  You’ll need a big pot.

As for preparation, the original procedure is from a time of more primitive kitchens.  And of more primitive beekeeping.  The multiple cycles of heating and cooling the honey and wine, then skimming, are probably because ancient bulk honey (cheap enough to be used in 11 pound quantities) had a lot more gunk in it (wax, bits of dead bees, pollen).  These days, it’s difficult to find honey like that, and you have to pay extra for it, at Whole Foods or some similar store.  I didn’t bother with the skimming.  I heated the honey with 150 mL wine.  (Don’t get nervous about the metric units if you live in the United States, like I do.  Your measuring cups should have metric as well as Imperial units.  Unless you bought the really cheap ones.  If that sounds like you, go get some proper measuring cups before making this recipe.  Right now!)  Use medium low or low heat, and stir it a lot.  When you measure the honey and wine into the pot, you’ll think “This recipe will never work; it’s as thick as molasses!”  Don’t worry, the honey liquifies as you heat.

The first time I made this, I used Greek retsina for the wine.  Some people think that’s closer to the wine they would have had in the ancient world, since they often used pine resin to waterproof the clay amphorae in which they stored it.  The second time I made the recipe, I used a 1.5 liter bottle of inexpensive Italian pinot grigio.  I didn’t taste them side by side or anything, but I don’t remember one tasting different from the other.  Use something dry with a decent level of acidity, and don’t spend too much money on it, because you won’t be able to taste any subtlety in the wine anyway.

The recipe doesn’t say anything about how long the spices are supposed to sit in the wine and honey syrup before you add the rest of the wine.  It also doesn’t say whether you’re supposed to grind the mastic and date pit, or just toss them in.  Or how long to roast the date pit.  The first time, I roasted the date pit for about an hour at 350 F, then ground both it and the mastic (separately) in a coffee grinder before adding them to the pot.  The second time, I only roasted the pit for half an hour (which I think was still too long), and just crushed it in a mortar and pestle (the mortar and pestle is also good for smushing the soaked date).  I didn’t grind the mastic at all, the second time.  This is because mastic, a resin, is kind of sticky, and it was a pain to get it out of the coffee grinder into the pot, and then a double pain to clean the coffee grinder.  After adding the spices, I kept the pot on the lowest heat for about half an hour, stirring every now and then.  It shouldn’t boil, so if your stove doesn’t have a really low heat setting, you might have to switch it between on and off.  You could also just let it steep for an hour or so, like tea.

The second time, when I added the whole mastic beads to the pot instead of grinding them, I was sort of hoping they would melt or dissolve into the mix.  They did soften, but they never entirely went away, and the mixture was starting to boil, so I gave up.  I learned afterwards that mastic doesn’t dissolve in water and is only slightly soluble in alcohol.  Apparently, it can take days to dissolve it in pure alcohol at room temperature.  Also, according to one of the customer reviews on Amazon, I was supposed to rinse the beads off before using them, because they’re covered with a very fine sand.  Hmm.  Next time, I guess.

Once you’ve decided the honey wine syrup has melded with the spices long enough, add the rest of the wine.  Then strain out the spices.  I didn’t bother with the charcoal.  Partly because the recipe is unclear about how the charcoal is used, and partly because I wasn’t confident that the hardwood charcoal I buy for the grill should be added to food.  However, I’ve used charcoal in the chemistry lab to decolor and clarify solutions, so I suspect that the proper procedure for this is to add a spoonful or two of ground charcoal, bring to a simmer, then strain.  If you do want to try this, you will need to strain it through a coffee filter.  Otherwise you won’t have clarified the wine at all, you’ll just have added unsightly black dust to the bottom.  Cheesecloth isn’t fine enough.

Since I didn’t use charcoal, I didn’t even both straining through cheesecloth, I just used a fine mesh strainer.  It doesn’t get rid of all the spice sludge, but I was lazy, and decided that the spice sludge added character.  It it at least removes all the large chunks.

Now you have conditum paradoxum.  It should taste mostly of honey and saffron, with a bit of a peppery bite.  Like I said earlier, you won’t want to drink this straight.  It’s way too sweet and syrupy.  3 parts water to 1 part spiced wine works pretty well.  Or, if you want to throw away all the historical authenticity for which you’ve labored so hard, use sparkling water or club soda as the mixer.

Even diluted, it still tastes mostly of honey and saffron, and pepper.  The wine gives it a necessary dose of acidity, though, balancing the sweetness.

It actually made me think of a wine cooler, especially the sparkling variation.  Very sweet, flavored, not too alcoholic.  One of the most fascinating things about trying to reproduce ancient food–or cooking food from contemporary cultures around the world, for that matter–is noticing unexpected similarities between the foreign and the familiar.

If you’re interested in either ancient Rome or food history, check out my earlier post on cooking ancient Roman food.  And stay tuned for future posts, where (assuming I get around to writing them) you can read all about The Search for Ancient Spices No One Uses Anymore, Sometimes Because They’re Poisonous, and How Ancient Roman Food is Like Thai Cooking.

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